Swedish Gadfly for Kids Keeps Officials Honest


WHEN a schoolgirl in Sweden heard that the government's Children's Ombudsman had set up a new toll-free help line, she quickly called to complain about her mother.

Her parents, she said, were divorced, and she had lost contact with her father. Her mother refused to help find him. Could the ombudsman intervene?

For two years, Swedish children have been offered an official channel to voice their needs. The new office was opened after Sweden adopted the 1990 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and builds on a tradition of having ombudsmen in many areas to guarantee that authorities properly implement - and do not abuse - Swedish law.

Only a handful of countries - Norway, New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Iceland - have children's ombudsmen.

''The mother felt threatened and didn't want to help,'' says Louise Sylwander, Sweden's first children's ombudsman, or children's-rights campaigner. ''But Swedish legislation says that children have a right to [see] both parents after a divorce.''

The ombudsmen's office, which has a full-time staff of 12, contacted the girl's school counselor, a person the mother could trust. The counselor mediated between the two. ''The mother finally understood, and the girl met her father,'' Ms. Sylwander says.

For years, Swedes could turn to 1 of 6 ombudsmen if they felt mistreated as a consumer, discriminated against because of sex or ethnicity, or wronged by a government agency or the courts.

While social service agencies for children also existed, kids found it harder than adults to voice their rights because they lack voting privileges and have little opportunity to take part in public debate, Sylwander says.

While she rarely intervenes in individual cases - the episode with the teenage girl was mainly to help set a precedent - she uses them as examples to point out gaps in current legislation.

Sylwander says her new status enables her to accomplish what she was unable to achieve as a private citizen. Her charges include abused children, teenage mothers, and refugees about to be deported to unsafe countries. She also speaks out on issues such as spending cuts to child care, jail for minors, and child pornography.

''We are a [mix] between an official authority and a watchdog. As ombudsmen, we should criticize the government and legislation if we feel it's fair to do so. We work like nongovernmental agencies, but we have the authority they lack. But we don't have legal power,'' she explains.

One of her primary aims is to work with the government to set up programs to curb school bullying. Children named bullying as the No. 1 problem they want her office to concentrate on, she says.

Sweden's unique ''working-environment'' law mandates that all have the right to work in a peaceful and safe setting, which for children would be school. Children are taught the harmful effects of bullying as early as pre-school, where cooperation and sharing is emphasized.

''We also place a big responsibility on the headmaster to prevent bullying,'' she says. She adds that corporal punishment has been illegal here since the 1950s, not only in schools but at home as well.

Outsiders, unused to government playing such a large role in personal lives, worry that the state may be playing too big a role in family matters, interfering in areas that should be the parents' domain. But Swedes insist they are already used to government playing a larger role than in the US in their personal and professional lives.

''We simply try to change legislation, so that young people have the chance to bring their opinions to the courts,'' says Anders Danielsson, who works with Sylwander. ''So there is little risk that the work of our office interferes with the privacy of the family.''

Sylwander, for her part, is confident that her appointment will be of paramount importance. She points out that her help line, which has fielded hundreds of calls, often deals either with parental problems or with sensitive or embarrassing issues children would be reluctant to discuss at home.

''Most calls are about bullying, neglect, loneliness, inability to communicate with parents, [and] problems with alcohol and divorce,'' she says.

Only a couple of complaints, she says, have turned out to be not serious. ''We've only had a few calls from children complaining that their allowances should be higher,'' she adds with a laugh.

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